When Dr. David Scrase, human services secretary, saw the early modeling projections of the impact the coronavirus could have on New Mexico, he thought they were rather generous.
During a Thursday news conference marking the one-year anniversary of the virus in New Mexico, he said a University of Washington model that predicted about 500 deaths was a best-case scenario.
“I actually thought it would be worse,” Scrase said.
His instinct proved to be correct, as the state has recorded more than 3,800 deaths and over 187,000 coronavirus cases since the first infections were reported March 11, 2020. However, the past two months have seen a dwindling case count amid an ongoing vaccination campaign, with the average seven-day case count dropping from 1,453 on Jan. 8 to 225 as of March 5. The daily death count fell from a high of 54 on Dec. 17 to six on Friday.
While it might seem like the worst is behind us, health officials emphasize that residents should remain vigilant and continue to wear masks and practice social distancing. They also express concern that the discovery of virus variants could reverse trends and send the state into another wave of cases.
“We should be cautious,” said Dr. Tracie Collins, state health secretary. “We should continue best practices. And if you’re offered the vaccine, please receive it. But we still need to stay the course.”
So far, the only variant state epidemiologists have discovered is the B.1.1.7 strain that originated in Britain. The first case was seen in January, but only eight cases have been reported in New Mexico since. State epidemiologist Christine Ross said the Scientific Lab Division is leading sequencing efforts to discover other variants.
She touted a statistic that showed the division is seventh in the nation in the percent of coronavirus samples being sequenced, but she said more work needs to be done.
“It’s not enough,” Ross said. “We need to continue ramping up as capacity allows and as quickly as we can.”
New York City can provide insight into what a mutated strain of the coronavirus can do. Health officials there said Wednesday the B.1.1.7 and the B.1.2.526 strains are responsible for 51 percent of the city’s cases. The two strains are more easily transmitted, but officials said they do not appear to be more deadly or vaccine-resistant.
Collins said the best thing New Mexicans can do is get vaccinated. She referred to a recent article from the Lancet, a peer-reviewed medical journal, that indicated the vaccines are effective for both symptomatic and asymptomatic people.
“There’s just more good news every day,” Collins said. “I welcome it.”
Scrase said updated models show the rate of vaccination in the state is responsible for a
60 percent decline in COVID-19 cases, which he said played a large role in the decision to fully open schools by April 5.
While variants identified in New York City, Britain and South Africa are getting media attention, they are the tip of the iceberg. A recent presentation from Los Alamos National Laboratory showed the virus has gone through hundreds of mutations already.
“The virus is constantly mutating,” Scrase said. “Hundreds have come and gone. The real issue is not whether we have variants or not because we’ve had them since the very beginning. The issue is: Is one of those variants going to be more resistant to treatment … or more resistant to the vaccine?”